There’s value to be had in a well-chosen band name. Like a great album cover, a memorable band name can get people listening even if they initially know nothing about the group’s music.
Some bands — like Maroon 5 and Blink-182 — prefer to keep people guessing, never revealing the thought process behind their monikers. But other band name origin stories have been revealed over the years. Here are the tales behind some of the most famous band names in rock history.
When looking into the meaning behind strange band names from the ’60s, there’s usually a good chance they have something to do with recreational drug use. In the case of The Doors, it was someone else’s drug use that inspired their unique name. Frontman Jim Morrison came up with the name after reading Aldous Huxley’s 1954 book, “The Doors of Perception,” which detailed the writer’s experiences using mescaline, which is similar to LSD. If you thought the band was just obsessed with carpentry, you were sorely mistaken.
It’s not often that an unrelated music icon gives another legendary band their name but that’s what happened with Led Zeppelin. In 1966 — three years before the band’s debut would be released — Zeppelin co-founder Jimmy Page played with The Who’s drummer Keith Moon on a track for musician Jeff Beck. During the sessions, someone suggested they should start a new band together, to which Moon joked that it would go over like “a lead balloon.” Page apparently remembered the line when it came time to form his own group.
Two things about The Beatles cannot be argued: They were ridiculously talented and their band name was awful. Rolling Stone has not been alone in calling it one of the worst monikers in music history but the guys were inspired to adopt it because of the success of another band named after insects. In the early 1960s, The Crickets were one of the most popular and respected bands in the world, which led a certain foursome from England to go a similar route, but with a groan-worthy pun.
With their penchant for psychedelic stage shows and experimental music, you’d think the origin of Pink Floyd’s name would be pretty interesting … but it’s not really. The British group’s eccentric founder, Syd Barrett, got the name by combining two of his own favorite musicians, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council, into one grand mashup. The name famously confused at least one unhip record company executive, who asked the band’s members, “Which one’s Pink?” as referenced in the 1975 song, “Have a Cigar.”
Not only does U2’s name have an origin story, but its lead singer has one for his own name as well. The band’s frontman, Bono, who was born Paul Hewson, got his stage name from his days running around in an Irish street gang as a kid. In those days, he went by the nickname Bono Vox of O’Connell Street, the first part of which came from the Latin phrase “bonavox,” which means “good voice.” Meanwhile, his band’s name came from a famous 1960 incident in which an American Lockheed U-2 spy plane crashed in Russia.
When Dave Grohl first started Foo Fighters, it was a one-man project. But he wanted it to sound like a band, so he came up with a name that made it sound more elaborate. The frontman has said that, at that time, he was reading a lot of books about flying saucers and that led him to stumble upon the name for his career-defining act. “Foo fighter” was a term used by pilots during World War II to describe UFOs seen in the air. Since then, Grohl has described it as the “dumbest … band name in the world.”
One of the more recent interesting band names came from a buddy of the group itself. When Coldplay first started in the 1990s, its founding members, including Chris Martin and Jonny Buckland, were students at University College London. While there, they were friends with a guy named Tim Crompton, who had his own band called Coldplay. Crompton dropped the name and allowed his pals to have it because he apparently thought it sounded too depressing. The band still recognizes Crompton as a “great friend,” but there’s no word on whether they’ve cut him in on any royalties!
Twenty One Pilots
One thing you’ll notice once you dig into many band name origins is how geeky they are. With the name of his band, Twenty One Pilots, frontman Tyler Joseph showed off his love of drama. The memorable name comes from a sad plot point in Arthur Miller’s 1947 play, “All My Sons,” which Joseph studied in school. The musician has said that the words stuck out to him as the main character’s negligence led to the deaths of 21 pilots.
If you think the name Korn is an awful one for a popular band, you’ve understood it perfectly. It was intended by founder Jonathan Davis as a big middle finger to the idea that band names needed to be mysterious and cool. More than 25 years after their debut album came out, Davis still thinks the name is hilarious and loves that the band has had so much success with that particular moniker. “We were being … stupid drunk kids,” the singer told Kerrang of coming up with the name.
Perhaps shockingly, this one didn’t come directly from a reference to drugs, although it certainly could’ve been found while Jerry Garcia was under the influence. The story, as told in a book by Grateful Dead biographer Blair Jackson, goes that Garcia flipped open a large dictionary at co-founder Phil Lesh’s house and the term “grateful dead” jump out at him. “It was one of those moments, you know, like everything else went blank, diffuse, just sort of oozed away, and there was GRATEFUL DEAD in big, black letters edged all around in gold, man, blasting out at me, such a stunning combination,” Garcia said. The rest of the guys agreed it would be a great band name.
Like Pink Floyd, the Southern rock icons Lynyrd Skynyrd had a name that could’ve been mistaken for a single member’s name by someone who wasn’t in the know. In fact, the band got its name from a teacher at their high school in Jacksonville, Florida, who once sent them to the principal’s office for having long hair. The educator’s name was Leonard Skinner and he taught gym in the 1960s before getting into real estate. The real Skinner once said he just “went along with the flow” after the band became famous and added, “I don’t consider myself an evil person and I don’t think I was.”
Creedence Clearwater Revival
This memorable band name actually came from three different sources, one for each previously unrelated word. The first word was chosen because band member Tom Fogerty had a friend with the interesting name Credence Nuball. The middle word came from an advertisement for Olympia beer, a brewing company based in Washington. The third part of the name came from the simple fact that the band members were reuniting, or being “revived,” after a three-year hiatus because of military duties.
Of all the great band names out there, Weezer’s origin may be the most personal and touching. Long rumored to have been a childhood nickname for frontman Rivers Cuomo because he suffered from asthma, that story is only half correct. He never had asthma, but he was called Weezer as a child by his father, who would write him letters after he and Cuomo’s mother got divorced, always beginning them with, “To Weezer.” The musician has said the name still has great emotional resonance for him, and he still loves it as a band name.
“It was definitely the right name,” Cuomo told Rolling Stone.
Few band names are as evocative as Arcade Fire, which can also be said of their music. The Canadian indie-rock heroes got their name from an event that may or may not have actually happened. Co-founder Win Butler told Clash that, as a child, another kid told him a story about an arcade going up in a blaze.
“I would say that it’s probably something that the kid made up, but at the time I believed him,” Butler said. Either way, it sparked a great band name!
While you may have thought Green Day was a holiday akin to Arbor Day, involving much appreciation of the environment, it’s actually just about getting high. The phrase is slang for a day where one does little but smoke marijuana. In 2010, Billie Joe Armstrong appeared on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher” and confirmed for the show’s host that his band’s strange name is “absolutely about pot.” The frontman added, “I think we were trying to be, like, the Cheech & Chong of punk rock for a while.”
System of a Down
Another band that’s as unique as its name is System of a Down, but the name was actually sort of inspired by the fame of another group. Originally, the group was going to call itself Victims of a Down, based on a poem written by member Daron Malakian. However, bassist Shavo Odadjian convinced his bandmates to change the first word to “system” because he thought they might sell more albums if their records were filed closer to his favorite band, Slayer, at stores.
Fall Out Boy
Speaking of pop culture references that may get by some people, the origin of Fall Out Boy’s name will immediately be known by fans of “The Simpsons.” In that iconic animated series, Fallout Boy is the Robin-like sidekick of a comic book hero named Radioactive Man, who is beloved by Bart Simpson. The character of Fallout Boy debuted in a 1991 episode of the show and the band later took it, adding a space to break up the first word. In 2009, the band paid tribute to the show further by recording a cover of its theme song.
This legendary Seattle outfit was originally called Mookie Blaylock, named after an NBA player from the era in which they started. They later came up with the name Pearl Jam in a pretty dull and random way, partly inspired after seeing a concert by Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Bassist Jeff Ament told Rolling Stone, “Every song [at the concert] was like a 15- or 20-minute jam, so that’s how ‘jam’ got added on to the name.” Meanwhile, Ament told the magazine he thought of the word “pearl” completely at random.
Guns N’ Roses
Sometimes a band’s name comes pretty naturally, with an origin that actually makes a lot of sense. One such example is Guns N’ Roses, who were going to name themselves something edgy, like AIDS, but decided on their classic name out of respect to their former musical outfits. Various members of the band had been involved in two other bands: L.A. Guns and Hollywood Rose. Thus, the new band name came from a mixture of those two, according to a 1988 Rolling Stone story.
Joey Kramer, co-founder and drummer of Aerosmith, apparently came up with his band’s name before there was even a band for it to be used on. During a 2019 appearance on the syndicated radio show “Ultimate Classic Rock Nights,” Kramer said the name came to him after he spent a lot of time listening to a 1968 Harry Nilsson album called “Aerial Ballet” when he was in high school. He started writing the word “Aerosmith” all over his textbooks, telling people it would be the name of his eventual band. The band finally formed in 1970 when he got together with Steven Tyler and Joe Perry.
This was another band name that came from the drummer, as Matchbox Twenty co-founder Paul Douchette was inspired by a customer at a restaurant where he was working. The unknown customer was apparently wearing a shirt that had a big number 20 printed on it, along with a bunch of patches.
“The only word I saw from the patches was the word ‘matchbox,'” Douchette told MTV in 1997. He originally wanted to start a clothing company with that name but later pitched it to his bandmates, who thought it was “the dumbest name in the world” before adopting it and shooting to stardom in the ’90s.
Goo Goo Dolls
This beloved ’90s group was originally called The Sex Maggots, but they thankfully opted for a change after a club owner refused to put that name on his marquee. So the band members apparently flipped through a copy of True Detective magazine and stumbled upon the words “goo goo doll” in an advertisement, according to bassist Robby Takac.
“The first name was bad, so we moved on to another bad name, got 15,000 fans and were afraid to change it,” Takac told Forbes in 2011.
The Velvet Underground
Like The Doors, this unique band name came from the title of a book — although this one was related to sex instead of drugs. In this case, “The Velvet Underground” was the title of a book by Michael Leigh, chronicling the sexual revolution that was happening in the 1960s. The book, which was reportedly very one-sided against the practices it was covering, was published in 1963 and the band formed in 1965.
Here’s yet another famous band that took its name from literature. This iconic 1970s group got its name not from a book’s title but rather from a passage of its text. In 1959’s “Naked Lunch,” author William S. Burroughs mentions a product called a “Steely Dan III from Yokohama,” which is a sex toy used by one of the characters. The obscure reference makes sense when you consider that Steely Dan co-founder Donald Fagen was an English literature major at New York’s Bard College.
Death Cab for Cutie
Bringing things full circle, this band’s name was actually inspired by something involving another band on the list, The Beatles. Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard has said that he lifted his band’s moniker from a song performed during the Fab Four’s 1967 film, “Magical Mystery Tour.” During the movie, a band called the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band played a tune called “Death Cab for Cutie,” which stuck with Gibbard, who has since said he would change the band’s name to feature a more obvious reference if he could go back in time.
“But thank God for Wikipedia,” Gibbard told Time Out. “At least now, people don’t have to ask me where the f—ing name came from every interview.”